Ampersand Gallery: Jason Silva’s furniture music

The New York artist's deceptively simple graphite drawings conceal odd depths and perspectives


A series of smallish pictures lines the wall as you enter the gallery space at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books. They’re all graphite works done on paper by Jason Silva (NYC), part of Land Purchase, an exhibition on view till the end of this month. With the right amount of room for long standing looks, you can “read” the nine images from left to right—like a picture book, or stills from an old moving picture—and get a different story every time.

Silva has described the pictures as sets for films—with various interior-scene accoutrements like shutters, stovepipes, posts, stools, and billowy curtains—that will never, could never, be made. As in the unforgettable opening scene from Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, the viewer is dropped into an unaccountable frame, at 7 x 10 inches, to consider how to interact with and among strange objects and to ponder their effect. I might liken them to something out of a set for Les Six, the group of French composers guided by Erik Satie’s idea of music taken unseriously and a thing to take in without undue effort—“furniture music” is what Satie cheekily called it. Silva’s furniture music is the perfect setting for imagination. Like wordless background music, or Antonioni’s scene, we’re given enough clarity of detail and pictorial access, but aren’t handed any specific idea. Silva uses the device of surprise by letting various nuances of otherwise banal designs become something novel by their nearness.

Jason Silva, “3-23-17″/Courtesy Ampersand Gallery

Having only seen his works on Instagram (of all places), I found Silva’s drawings totally different in person. They’re simple black, white and gray, but their elements and settings baffle the eye. In 3-23-17, the interior-exterior dichotomy is on full display— a stick-house form stands out on a receding horizon backdropped by a stylized fire that emerges from behind the horizon line. A little striped pyramid and a large crater in the foreground command the far edges of the paper. Smoke funnels “underground,” from the distant flames and beneath the pyramid form, compressing the distance to reverse the shading that tricks the eye into seeing “distance.” Silva’s fitful tableaus are pretty out-there, but due to Silva’s clarity of detail and image rendering, they’re also eerily familiar.

Each frame is some complex of architectonics or other that’s meant to conjure a stage set, putting the viewer a few feet back of the proscenium. Fragments of disparate images come together in the miraculous way that somewhat resemble Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical period, and certain of the Hairy Who Chicago Imagist painters (thanks to this show, I’m thinking that an Art Green painting in black-and-white would suddenly take on a gallows feel, in lieu of enigma-noir gone technicolor). Green is, to my mind, in Silva’s artistic milieu.

Jason Silva, “2-14-17″/Courtesy of Ampersand Gallery

Philip Guston believed that you could never really finish anything, at least when it comes to a painting, and said that he would simply “abandon” each work. De Kooning said that the work can never be “right, because it doesn’t have everything in it. So you keep going until you’ve put everything you can into it.” For Silva, each picture is started, to be completed before the next is begun, as Ampersand proprietor Myles Haselhorst related. To me, each of these pictures is only in service of the whole; looking at the paintings on his website, this totally rings true. Seeing them up close, a sense of the deeper significance of this work begins to form: standing back to look at the series in relation to his paintings, these look like smaller parts of a larger invention. Silva’s preoccupation is with process as opposed to idea, which has, to all appearances, served his work since the early part of this decade. For him, the name of the game is, to borrow a phrase from painter Trevor Winkfield, “accrued facts made visible,” where all the artist needs are the things that have been lying around. Silva describes his systematic studio setup: “One paper. Four pencils. Eraser. Desk. Lamp. Chair. With these things I see an unending way.”

His focus is on the image before him then and there, as opposed to all the various materials and equipment that one might use for, say, an oil composition — palettes, paint tubes, rags, water, pots, brushes, knives, vaporizers, scrapers, quills, sponges, etc. He sticks to Arches Hot Press paper and mechanical pencils of varied heaviness, to yield varying tones. This causes a play of space and shadow within vignettes that look less like the proscenium that he may have had in mind, and more like flattened-out dream rooms with the air drawn out of them. In a good way.

The remarkable thing is that this rather intellectual setup leads to such adventurous work. The constraint and its attendant limitations allow Silva “to envision an infinite amount of variety in that one format.” We know how constraint works in other forms like poetry (the sonnet, sestina, haiku, etc.). Like poetry, in these drawings, the pleasant tension between simple elements and their complex relationships gives Silva’s work its power to surprise. The other thing about Silva is that he keeps things relatively simple and clear—as far as an enigma can be clear.

Jason Silva, “2-19-17″/Courtesy Ampersand Gallery

Certain areas in this sequential body of work (each is named for the day-month-year of completion) bear a mark-making that is deliberate and heavily rendered, so exacting that portions of the pictures look sliced out, or else modeled to reveal the kind of shadow effects you might get by way of another medium. In 2-19-17, this shadow makes no sense—the parallelogram shape doesn’t match the house that stands above it. The house, with physiognomic features that remind me a little of the forest hut of Baba Yaga, looms with the eerie charm of an Edward Gorey and is flanked by a dark and jagged pennant-teeth-saw motif that recurs throughout.

The iconography that Silva draws from (cold armatures, plumbing devices like piping, rings and bobs, instruction manual symbols, the stuff of civil engineering, armor, hemmed-in antechambers, billowy smoke) makes his work stand apart from the innumerable cute abstract paintings that are there for decoration and have become a cliché in contemporary art since Matisse’s later period. Silva’s isolated forms—“torn” Corinthian columns or ones with right volutes, columns, curtains—are corralled to reveal impossible portraits, still-lifes, landscapes—maybe all three. These complex, cramped otherworldly spaces cave into pictures, instead of the kind of disintegration of objects within space as we understand it. Trying to look at them as if they’re three-dimensional is just bewildering—everything gets pushed up against the surface that you’re looking at, that you can reach out and touch. But this doesn’t impede the charm of the two-dimensional compositions; it ramps it up.

There’s a certain difficulty in making a picture (in any medium) that reflects this particular era in America: by turns horrifying, banal, phony, destitute, or luxurious. But there are fragments to be determined and arranged that are also definitely a part of that picture as well—one that, in Silva’s case, is as realistic as anything else we’re told is real. You might ask yourself, “why should I care?” when looking at visual art like this. During confounding times like these, to me anyway, the proposition is often to reveal, talk about, or engage in the things that cause delight or surprise, relative to all the other things we’re forced to consider every day. With the appearance of Silva’s fragments and pleasing shapes mediated by made-up flattened atmospheres, the effort to figure out greater meaning vanishes. And in that context, an air of gallows-humor looms about Silva’s pictures—but maybe that’s just me.

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